After Radical Dads reminded me how much I missed 90’s US indie rock, I recently watched What Did You Expect?, an Archers of Loaf concert film from their 2011 reunion tour, shot at legendary Chapel Hill rock venue Cat’s Cradle. (WDYE? can be streamed on Amazon, for free if you have Prime).
I’d like to say the film is a good introduction to this most-excellent and sadly-underheard group.
The truth is, it’s probably for fans only -- the concert footage is decent enough, but the included interview footage is mostly low-key to the point of boredom.
For four guys who made rock music that was frequently full of both off-kilter eccentricity and unbridled aggression (burly, arty garage-punk? Apocalyptic noise-pop?), they come across in person as unassuming, mellow, even shy/retiring types (guitarist Eric Johnson became a public defender after the band’s final studio album).
So let’s let the songs speak for them.
Up top: we’ll ease in softly, with Archers frontman Eric Bachmann in his solo Crooked Fingers guise doing a semi-recent solo acoustic rendition of one of the Archers’ defining “hits”.
Uncluttered by the raucous sonic detritus that was a Loaf trademark, what shines through is the essential tunefulness and self-deprecating melancholy (“You’re not the one who let me down / But thanks for offering”), mixed with a predilection for grotesque lyrical imagery full of scum and viscera and bodily functions and the subterranean drawn straight from the Freudian unconscious muck (i.e., the improbably-catchy -- even tender! -- chorus, “All I ever wanted was to be your spine”).
Here’s “Web” in the form that launched a thousand mixtapes:
Is there any better thumbnail of repressed teenage emotional confusion than “Jot it down and I stuck it in the basement / Underneath the living room floor / For some reason I don’t think I’m gonna make it / Some reason I don’t think about it / Anymore”?:
This one is memorable for the piercing, barely-controlled tone of that careening kamikaze lead guitar, scribbling and scrawling across the verses with a crayon labeled “Air-Raid Klaxon”:
What Did You Expect? mostly focuses on material from the band’s first two LPs -- the band had played those songs so many times on their original run that they were relatively easy to re-learn (though Bachmann admitted that sometimes he had trouble recalling the words he’d originally sung, as they were often spontaneously made-up).
As a band that made good use of odd tunings and dissonance, another thing the reunited band struggled with after so many years apart was recalling how they used to achieve those distinctive sounds.
For example, “Slow Worm” (there’s that “underground” imagery again), the closing song on their debut Icky Mettle, has some of the strangest, yet most beautiful guitar sounds I’ve ever heard.
It totally shouldn’t work, but it totally does:
Back in the day, one thing that took me a couple listens to realize was that every AoL string squeak, every metallic scrape, every amp squawk, was not the mark of players who did not know what they were doing; but instead were shards of noise deployed as unshakeable hooks -- fashioned with intent, and cast with deadly precision.
The Archers just had a different idea of what constituted “catchy”, and damned if they weren’t right:
Bachmann’s hoarse, strangled bellow was also one of the most distinctively-rhythmic vocal deliveries in rock, syncopating his words pugilistically like a rapper over the band’s roar.
Sometimes the effect was sardonically resigned, like in the wonderfully-titled fife-and-bugle call-to-arms (or at least, “off-the-sofa”) slacker mock-anthem “Underachievers March and Fight Song”.
Usually, it was instead blood-pumpingly rousing, like this rallying cry for the slum-dwelling “thugs and scum and punks and freaks” who “wanna be free”:
If the Archers sometimes sounded like a feral junkyard Television who’d strung their tangling dual guitars with rusty barbed wire, by their incredibly varied (even pretty!) third LP All The Nation’s Airports (1996), the North Carolinians had allowed some kudzu to intertwine with those strings and soften them up, just a little.
This allowed them to find a satisfying middle ground somewhere between R.E.M. and Sonic Youth; as evidenced on the patient, shimmering instrumental “Acromegaly”, or the jangling “Scenic Pastures”:
This one has a nagging, circular structure, continuously eating its own tail like the failing relationship seemingly being alluded to in the sampled answering-machine monologue:
Listening to Airports today, it oddly seems like a post-9/11 album; it’s full of pilot paranoia and pervasive surveillance, assassinations and terrorists and hidden dangers.
But hopefully the unnamed lurking seamonster in this beautiful saloon-piano number is just metaphor:
Another piano piece from the same album, completely-vocal-free this time, this is heartbreakingly lovely; it sounds like the saddest silent-film soundtrack in the world:
By their fourth and oddly-paced final studio album White Trash Heroes, the band were burned out from relentless touring. They were also unhappy with their choice of label, having signed early with Alias after being initially turned down by some of the better-known indies (and in turn, famously turning down an in-person offer from Madonna to sign to her boutique Maverick label), and generally unsure of their path forward.
Bachmann in particular felt he needed to try out less-noisy directions, both to follow his muse, and because he had been advised by his doctor that continuing to shred his larynx was unsustainable.
While the album is by no means a failure (indeed, it points to several possible new sonic directions, some of which Bachmann made good on in his subsequent folkier solo and Crooked Fingers work), it does have an audibly-frustrated darkness to it; on “I.N.S.” and “Banging on a Dead Drum”, the band sounds like a raging beast growing tired of pointlessly, ineffectually beating against the bars that contain it.
It feels like a transitional record, a huge unresolved question mark; unfortunately the answer never came, and the band split amicably.
I’ve never been able to work out exactly what to call this snare-driven track -- “electronoiseabilly”?:
The nasal, twangy falsetto Bachmann adopts on this song seems almost whimsical, until you realize how freaking dark the impressionistic lyrical imagery is:
We’ll head out into the night with a pretty nice cover of the weary, elegiac title track, which in its original form has an almost bagpipe-like drone to it: